Press-Republican

December 28, 2011

Trail proponents to study railroad's economic impact

JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

TUPPER LAKE — Proponents of a plan to replace a tourist train with a recreation trail have initiated a study to determine what benefits the railroad has had on the community.

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad began offering tourist rides from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid 11 years ago on rails originally used by the New York Central Railroad, which ended its passenger service in 1965 and freight service in 1972.

Recent talks have focused on the possibility of stretching that historic rail line to Tupper Lake, adding 25 miles to the nine-mile existing stretch.

IMPACT DOUBTED

However, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates group believes the rail bed would be much better suited as a recreation trail for hiking, bicycling and as an access to the Adirondack wilderness for people with disabilities.

"The premise for restoring the rail lines as a tourist railroad was that the railroad would be good for business," said Dick Beamish, a member of the Trail Advocates steering committee.

"There are two main sections of the tourist train: one from Utica up to Old Forge, which has done fairly well, and the one between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, which really hasn't paid off.

"We don't see where businesses have had any impact from this train."

'GOOD TEST'

Trail Advocates held a press conference in Tupper Lake Tuesday morning announcing its plans to commission a study on the costs for converting the lines to a recreation trail and to identify the economic impact the tourist train has had on the region.

"Our position is that they've had a good test to see if it works economically, and as far as we can see, it hasn't," Beamish said.

"We've been promoting an alternative (the recreation trail) that has been largely successful in other areas."

Trail Advocates believes the existing rail line between Old Forge and Lake Placid would be a tremendous tourist draw and could possibly bring in as many as 150,000 people to bicycle or hike through scenic Adirondack wilderness.

Beginning those efforts with a recreation trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake would go a long way to jumpstart the much longer trail, Beamish said.

REPORT BY JUNE

Rails to Trails Conservancy will now begin to study the costs of removing the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and will also review similar projects on recreation trails elsewhere. That report will be completed by June 2012 and will be made available to the public and to local, regional and state officials, Beamish said.

BIAS ISSUE

Pete Snyder, operations manager for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, said he is skeptical of any results that come from the report.

"I'm not surprised of their interest (in announcing the study), but I do question the nature of another study that is essentially commissioned by them," Snyder said.

"I do question whether it will be an unbiased study or one in which they determine their own results."

Snyder believes Trail Advocates has ignored facts that have shown the Scenic Railroad has been a success. He called Tuesday's announcement "just more of the same rhetoric repeated over and over in hopes that someone will buy it."

Snyder also questioned the concept of developing the trail to Old Forge, noting that he believes only the most seasoned Adirondack hikers would use such an extensive system.

"This has been very economically managed property that the taxpayer owns," Snyder said of the existing rail line. "We've helped them preserve it at a minimal cost."

Snyder also believes expansion to Tupper Lake is long overdue; the added rail lines will help to boost the Scenic Railroad's success, he said.

BUSINESS SURVEY

Students at Paul Smith's College will survey businesses in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid to assess the economic impact of the tourist train. That information will also be provided to the public once completed, Snyder said.

Supporters for the railroad have suggested developing a "rail and trail" system that would allow the train to continue its runs from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake and possibly expand to Tupper Lake while creating a recreation trail to run parallel to the rail lines.

Beamish feels that option is not viable, citing parts of the line that are too narrow to hold a complementary trail and saying it would be cost-prohibitive to create.

HISTORICAL OUTLOOK

Several political, economic and historic organizations across the region have voiced support for the railroad and are not convinced that a recreation trail would be a viable alternative.

"We're interested in protecting special historic sites in the Adirondack region, and the rail line is listed on the National Register of Historic Places," said Steven Englehart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

"You're looking at a place that is quite big, more than 11,000 acres, and includes several pretty significant historical structures.

"Our concern is that the state's Historical Preservation Office has said that removing the rails will have an adverse impact on this historical resource.

"We don't know as much about the economic impacts of a recreation trail versus an active railroad use, but it's interesting to note that both major economic-development organizations have publicly stated they are not in favor of removing the rail lines."

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council recently released a comprehensive strategic plan that called for retaining and revitalizing rail corridors across the region, and the Adirondack North Country Association has also voiced support for the rail line.

Email Jeff Meyers at: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com